GAO report critical of FDA oversight of produce
The Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of food safety in the fresh produce industry has been hindered by an inadequate budget and staff, according to a study released by the Government Accountability Office.
At the same time the agency has devoted resources to investigate foodborne illness outbreaks and an increased role in counterterrorism efforts, taking away from inspections and other preventative measures, the office said in a report on fresh produce.
The GAO said in the report, released Sept. 26, that FDA spent $20 million — about 3% of its food safety budget — on fresh produce in 2007. The agency in June requested to have its overall 2009 budget increased by $275 million.
The report highlights the previously published fact that less than 1% of the nation’s fresh produce imports are inspected by FDA. Furthermore, GAO found that 92% of samples taken from imports were tested for pesticides rather than pathogens. The report says inadequate funding led the agency to shed 17% of its food safety staff since it peaked at 3,969 workers in 2003.
The report was critical of FDA’s lack of intervention with domestic firms. The report says that 2,002 domestic companies were inspected an average of two times from 2000 through 2007. Though problems were observed in 41% of these inspections, FDA frequently relied on firms “to take voluntary corrective action.”
The report also includes previously unpublished FDA data indicating that from 1996 through 2006 there were at least 96 outbreaks, 10,253 illnesses and 14 deaths linked to fresh produce.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) called for the GAO study after the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach.
“This report paints a frightening picture of the FDA’s fresh produce safety efforts — insufficient resources and staff, infrequent inspections and a failure to punish known violators,” Boxer said in a statement. “It also offers further proof that the Bush Administration’s disdain for government oversight and regulation has had disastrous consequences in terms of food safety and public health, let alone the financial markets. This report should serve as a wake up call to do more to protect the nation’s food supply.
“I strongly urge the next President to make the necessary administrative changes recommended in this report, and I am committed to working with my colleagues to make sure that Congress passes common-sense legislation to help the FDA achieve its mission of keeping our food safe and healthy to eat,” her statement read.
The GAO reported that the FDA’s Food Protection Plan could significantly enhance the agency’s oversight of the industry. However, since much of that effort remains in the planning stages the report said it is “difficult to assess the likelihood of success.”
The Food Protection Plan includes plans to update guidance on Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices, and the agency has asked Congress for authority to implement preventive controls for high-risk commodities as part of the plan.
The GAO recommends updating those guidance documents and pursuing preventative controls in the report.
An FDA spokesman could not be reached for comment, but the agency released a statement in response to the report.
“FDA appreciates the Congressional investment in its efforts to implement the Food Protection Plan, which calls for two of the very same authorities recommended in this report,” the agency said. “In addition, FDA will soon be awarding grants to states to further food and feed safety — one of the many steps we are taking to transform food protection.”
The full report is available here.